Computational thinking in early years across Europe: Co-Make comes to London

A favourite children’s action song performed in five languages in as many countries, pattern making with gloves in the playground…it can only be Co-Make. The early years computational thinking project met (virtually) in London this week for a pan-Europe learnathon – find out what went on.

As we are all very well aware now, virtual meetings can have their drawbacks. There can be an awkwardness online, there’s the endless muting and cries of “you need to unmute!”, the lack of serendipitous conversations over coffee (not to mention the biscuits). However, as this week’s three-day meeting of the Co-Make project, hosted virtually by us here in London showed, there are also unexpected, amazing and heartwarming benefits. 

Very young children from across Europe singing ‘Heads, shoulders, knees and toes’ in their own languages to each other (for over an hour!) was a joy that would have been very hard to organise in person, along with whistlestop laptop tours around their schools, seeing firsthand and unfiltered how the children are learning in their different environments. It went to the heart of what we’re trying to achieve with Co-Make. 

What is Co-Make?

It’s an Erasmus+ project bringing together educators and children from the UK, Netherlands, Finland, Sweden and Denmark. We’re looking at how we can support very young children to develop computational thinking. Across Europe, we’re exploring how we can build what is already existing good practice in early years foundation stage (EYFS) or early childhood education (ECE) supporting the development of computational thinking: pattern, sequencing, instructions, problem-solving, planning. It’s most definitely not about imposing technology or attempting any kind of formal computing curriculum activity. Instead, this project is all about enhancing digital competence through inclusive, collaborative, computational thinking. You can find out more in our earlier blog post, and in project coordinator Vibeke’s delightful recap of the Co-Make story so far.

London CLC is one of the project partners and it was our turn to host the three-day meeting and one of the five project learnathons. These involve children in each of the partner schools tackling a common challenge planned beforehand, and sharing their computational thinking approaches and results with the other schools, encouraging collaboration and learning from each other in a fun way (hence, ‘Heads, shoulders, knees and toes’…) So, what did we get up to?

Day one: tours and a surprise activity

The first day got off to a warm and friendly start as we welcomed some new colleagues and renewed acquaintance with colleagues we’ve been working with for a year. 

London CLC’s director Sarah Horrocks did a brief presentation on the English early years context and the London primary schools, Stockwell, Hitherfield and Essex, we’re working with on the project. Highlights included two live tours from Finland and Netherlands as teacher colleagues carefully carried their laptops around the building and the school playground, giving us valuable glimpses of daily school life, from seeing the children have their lunch to delving into drawers full of maker equipment and craft materials.  We also had a recorded YouTube tour from one of the Swedish schools.

“It was amazing to collaborate with all of the different schools in the different countries. It was really interesting to have tours around the different schools and to hear about how each school approached the Learnathon 2 task. It gave me lots of great ideas for my own practice!”
Teacher
Co-Make

All the teachers enthusiastically joined in the surprise activity, ahead of learning it with their classes later in the day ready for the children’s live performance, in their home language, to everyone else. ‘Heads shoulders knees and toes’ is a well-known song with actions, available in multiple language versions and we’ve been viewing it from the computational thinking perspective of patterns, sequences and repeats.

Interestingly, this is an action song mentioned in the new Barefoot EYFS materials, which explains how it can be used with children to create a set of instructions (an algorithm), debug their algorithm and learn to use repetition.

Day two: singing, patterns and a quiz

At a glance: the complications of working across three timezones with 12 schools live!

We started the day with a truly wonderful experience. Across the 12 partner schools children in the four to six age range performed in succession the Finnish, Swedish, Danish, Dutch and then finally English versions of ‘Heads, shoulders, knees and toes’. The children were excited and interested to see the other classes live and the Danish class, who were ready and waiting 20 minutes early, chose to stay and watch the other children perform the song for well over an hour. We had fast and slow versions, some with slightly different actions and the children asked each other some questions. Swedish teachers had the great idea of displaying the shadow silhouettes of children who were not allowed to appear on screen which was really effective.

We finished with a grand finale, with all children and adults unmuting their microphones and singing and doing the actions all together – stupendous!

“I have learnt a lot about the importance of pointing out and talking about patterns in the environment, especially within nature.”
Teacher
Co-Make

After a break, when the children were settled back into class, we shared another fascinating experience – seeing what happened during Learnathon 2 which had the theme ‘pattern’ (pattern recognition and pattern making in a computational thinking context). The range of ideas was huge, with the children spotting patterns in nature and making patterns in the playground and classroom with natural objects, toys and art materials and in all sorts of ways. Some schools were using ipads for the children to capture the patterns they had made, some were on display boards, some were very short live patterns like the repeating shapes children made using their own bodies in the playground. A London school used tyres and crates in the playground, while some impromptu glove fun in the Finnish playground was extended by the teacher into a team activity of making patterns, checking and debugging. One clever idea was to weave coloured ribbons through the playground railings. We also had a live tour around the Danish school.

We rounded off Day 2 with a short virtual pub quiz (non-alcoholic!), courtesy of CLC colleague Rowan Roberts. This gave participants  the opportunity to work together in groups that included teachers and coordinators from different countries, developing the collaborative relationships that are central to the project and giving everyone a chance to exercise the computational thinking skills. Questions included facts about London and ended with a puzzle based on the tube map. It’s a tough one – can you solve it?!

Day three: the pedagogy

“We have learnt so much from other schools how to use computational thinking in our learning.”
Teacher
Co-Make

The final day was concerned with the pedagogy behind the previous days’ activities, what fits with child development and what we have learned from the first two learnathons. The next learnathon will be on the theme of movement and moving from unplugged movement with the body then progression to physical computing.

“It was nice to see children from different countries and I think it was really important that children see each other as well.”
Teacher
Co-Make

We were also looking ahead to the next meeting. It’s due to be in Sweden in April/May and we’re all very much hoping that it can be in person. Virtual has been a great success but some elements do work better face to face. However, we will be introducing more school to school communication and collaboration with the children, given the success of ‘heads, shoulders, knees and toes’! We plan to make more use of the Erasmus+ eTwinning Twinspace platform (British Council is the national agency for the UK) as a safe place where classes can share photos and have class to class contact and comment on things that have been posted.

Blended learning challenges

Of course, all this learning and collaboration was against the backdrop of the continuing pandemic situation, which the Co-make coordinators keep in touch about in regular calls. The lockdown  situation varies from country to country but we are all facing challenges. Swedish early years and primary schools have been open throughout the pandemic but teacher sickness is now meaning that some classes and schools are having to be at home. Earlier in the year the partners were impressed by the speed of school closure and early reopening in Denmark, where learning outdoors has been a feature for all ages. The crisis regarding mink farms has made the situation more worrying recently with the population of Jutland not allowed to leave their municipal areas. In the Netherlands schools have been open as normal since May but teacher quarantines are putting pressure on staffing. Our London schools are open but some class bubbles have had to isolate, meaning a move to blended learning.

Conclusion

We have been delighted at the way that the whole project has moved forward significantly through Learnathon 2 and the way we were all able to make the most of this important opportunity to reflect and learn together this week. At London CLC we’re planning some blended learning resources to support teachers with the computational thinking pedagogy of Learnathon 3, which the schools begin at the start of the New Year. The national coordinators for the project will be refining the brief in consultation with the schools in the coming weeks. We look forward to letting you know how that goes, and in particular to highlighting how, we are sure, that whatever the conditions and challenges prevailing at the time across our five countries, the ingenuity, enthusiasm and commitment of our project teachers will win out to provide engaging and stimulating new learning for the children – and for the staff too.

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